I’ve gotten a few new stamps in my passport lately. I can’t appreciate them though. Heck, I can barely even see them. Travelers have often enjoyed slowly filling their passports with exotic entry stamps and visas as little mementos from all the places they’ve been, but the latest revision of the U.S. passport takes all the fun out of it. The passport, released by the soviet propaganda style Department of Homeland Security, in 2007 even has a name “American Icon.” By now, many of you already have one of these coloring book civics lessons.
Entrance and exit stamps from the Ukraine float above a trout fishing Grizzly. Both the stamps and the bear are diminished by each others presence.
The booklet, an official travel document, is brimming over with bright, bold, full color images of eagles and U.S. flags, purple mountains and amber waves of grain. Each page has an inspiring patriotic quote too. The over the top patriotism of it all ends up being an embarrassment, and likely frustrates border patrols looking for a clear place to stamp it upon entry.
American stereotypes may be a bit exaggerated. We notice all the loud, baggy shorts and white tennis shoe wearing citizens who confirm our preconceived notions but we actually miss all the folks who don’t stand out and would actually prove that the stereotype isn’t so true after all. What do Americans look like? If we noticed all of them, it might be hard pin down this mutli-cultural country where the only thing they might have in common is a little self deprecating sense of humor–a willingness to laugh at themselves. Instead, with this flag waving coloring book in hand, my America-First, screw the rest, attitude precedes me even at the border of every country I visit long before I have a chance to show them otherwise.
Even if you like the look of our comic book cum travel document, you’ll be disappointed as soon as you start using it as various visas and stamps will blot out whole pages. My Russian visa forces me to miss a whole chapter in our story of conquest of the American West. The Chinese visa authorities chose to obliterate amber waves of grain.
We shouldn’t be surprised. The “American Icon” passport book is a product of an administration whose president barely traveled outside the United States. It’s a ham-handed attempt to force a civics lesson on border guards around the world while instilling pride in U.S. travelers who wind up more annoyed that they can no longer make out just when they traveled to China last year.
As some colleagues and I presented our passports for security identification recently, one of them saw the last page of mine and asked: “so, America owns the moon now too?” Thank you, Department of Homeland Security. What am I supposed to say to this guy? The new passport book as one advantage, it provides continued motivation to travel, just so I can get enough stamps to hide the silly pictures and make it look like the formal travel document it’s supposed to be.
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Ooops. Sure, you are probably waiting with baited breath for more details of my, now not so recent, trip to China, and it’s about time I finished it too. However, I just noticed that I forgot my little notebook and if the volcano ash doesn’t divert my plane I am off to Frankfurt for a few weeks.
Meanwhile, on the last trip I pet lion cubs and was amazed at how well behaved Russian children are. Surely I can think of something. Any requests?
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I am still not buying an iPad (yet) but some of things I’ve been reading and hearing about are just wrong. Take Eric Sherman at Bnet who thinks that the iPad is an example of Apple ignoring it’s brand. In addition to a few weak points about an e-book reader interface element that is not up to Apple’s design par and a poor book cover for iPad, his main point is that Apple is forgetting the creative designers and developers that have really made Apple.
The iPod and now the iPad, he claims, is no longer for content creators but for consumers. He sees that as proof that Apple is leaving behind their core market. He’s right in a way, web development and graphic design really are better completed on an actual computer, and not a media consumption device that the iPad or iPod is. However, just as I’ve described how the iPad is bad for the used book market, it’s nothing but a bonanza for content creators. Here’s why.
Unlike desktop and laptop computers, Apple has created an ecosystem for software distribution that virtually eliminates piracy. There is just no straightforward way for the consumer to have access to all that software without paying the price the developer wishes for it. Same for books (unless they have a book scanner, but that’s not practical). It’s almost the same for movies, as the tools for ripping your own DVDs are limited and not wide spread and converting movies from pirated sources to the iPad is inconvenient at best. From the Apple ecosystem’s point of view, they’ve even done the same for music, but as the digital music files are small, it turns out that pirating these appears to be still easy enough.
That’s a huge departure from open systems out there. Imagine, your a developer of content; you know, one of those very creative people Mr. Sherman thinks Apple left behind. You can create software for an open platform, such as Android and it’s just like developing for the PC. You put it out there through a variety of distribution models and then people download it, and some cracker breaks your copy protection and suddenly it might as well be shareware, whether you like it not. Some people will be honest and pay, others will not. You have to raise your price to cover the difference. Meanwhile, if you create a clever piece of content for the iPad/iPhone, you must submit it to the Apple store and pay their commission because, alas, that is the only way for users to gain access to your creation; but when they tell their friends about it, they can’t also send them a copy to play with. Off they go to the Apple store themselves to buy their own copy. This isn’t just for software. Ars Technica is describing comics as a killer application for the iPad. Web comics and e-zines may finally have a great place to live, in full color, and with animation, able to be read where you want to read them, in coffee shops and waiting rooms without a plug nearby.
The iPad is only the initial expense for consumers to enjoy media. Everything else, users have to pay for. If I buy one, I lose my access to used books, music and DVDs. I am no longer able to pick up a used magazine in the seat back pocket in front of me on the plane. All of those second hand purchases and scavenging (what, you’ve never read a paper after someone else did?) doesn’t help content creators one bit. They only get paid for the first use. Far from forgetting it’s core of content creators, Apple’s developers have never had it so good.
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I’ve been surprised by the vociferous remarks from various tech wags and forum commenters about how terrible the iPad from Apple is. It’s just a big iPod touch, they say. Why would anyone buy this? It’s not as good as a netbook. Really, if you don’t want one, don’t buy one, it’s just not that important, is it?
I don’t want an iPad. What I really do want is an Apple version of a netbook. I want a thin, light, very small, but very inexpensive laptop, that runs the same applications as my full size laptop, even if slower and with a cramped keyboard. That’s not what the iPad is; it really is a big iPod Touch, but that’s all it has to be.
Compared to a netbook, the iPad does many of the same things, but it’s instant-on, and super easy to interact with. Having one of these things just lying around the house as an instant web interface, book and magazine reader, reference too, and quick game toy…none of that is like a netbook and it’s pretty cool.
Compared to a Kindle or other e-book reader, it not only allows you to take thousands of books with you where ever you go, but it’ll also play movies on a tolerably large screen, allow you to write e-mail in a few minutes without waiting for a boot-up time. The books and magazines will have color photography, graphics, and more. Perhaps the screen will be more tiresome to read, but it will be much more exciting and versatile then the dull e-ink.
The people who bought an iPad either already see these advantages, or they’ll notice soon and the annoying all-Apple-all-the-time excitement will only grow. I don’t want an iPad because it’s rather expensive (although not so much compared to a Kindle, which requires a subscription, and not really that much compared to an iPod Touch which doesn’t seem to garner so much ire) and I don’t really need one enough to justify it.
What’s really wrong with the iPad is that it may result in the real success of e-books. Imagine how great it would be if all of your text books, reference books, literature, magazines…everything, were right there in your brief case or purse. Your entire library on one device that even gets backed up to your home computer. It’s the iPod of books and media and that’d be fantastic. You could search it! Imagine never missing out on a quote from a book you read. Imagine how easy it is to bring several books with you for extended travel! (I could sure use this right about now.)
What have I got against e-books then? The problem for me, is that I buy both books and music second hand. The whole copyright and stealing thing? I am circumventing it each time I buy used media. Neither the artist, nor the record label ever sees a penny from a used CD. The only people who benefited are the original owner who sold it and the reseller who sells it again. I might as well have stolen it on a file-sharing site for all the benefit the musicians see.
All the same is true for used books. No new benefit for publishers and authors, but I get to enjoy books for a fraction of the cost of new ones. I need only remain slightly behind the times and not read the latest releases, but that’s hardly a sacrifice. For those, I can usually get them at that old-school edifice: the library. In trade I get to frequent one of the most charming shops in any interesting town: the used book store.
I can then digitize the used music and carry it with me on my iPhone. Can I do this with my used books? How about my existing library of reference and more? While this is officially possible, it’s well outside the reach of normal folks. E-books destroy the used book market. There is no need to get rid of your old books. They take up an insignificant amount of room and you can now refer to them easily for that one quote or passage you enjoyed so much. If you’re young enough to have no books yet, and your university starts using iPads for all of your texts, this may not be so painful, but you’ll still be cut out of cheap used book sales. I could never have afforded university books if I had to buy all of them new. Even if you wanted to save space and get rid of a few, e-books don’t show any wear and tear, there’s no reason, market demands not withstanding, to lower the price of your used e-books.
Sure I’d enjoy an iPad, or a Kindle. I can live without reading while the airplane takes off and lands and I have to keep my electronic devices powered off, but the shame is that the fun and convenience of these new devices will cost in ways that the “I love the smell of a book” purists haven’t even yet considered. Media sellers are rubbing their hands together in greed. Used book stores, and their loyal customers, on the other hand, not so much.
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I was trying to find the cradle of humankind. My hosts had given me a map printed from the internet and generously lent me their car to drive from suburban Johannesburg to the museum in downtown. South Africa is busy tearing up all the roads in Joburg in preparation for the World Cup in June 2010, but the map failed to reflect this. I drove to a dead end with no detour in sight. After getting lost for another 20 minutes, I realized that I was far from my intended destination. After calculating how long it might take to get back were I to get lost again, I abandoned my plans and followed signs to the Lion Park.
I could list all the different places in which I’ve been lost, but I am afraid it might sound like I am somehow bragging. This is simply the most recent confusion. I could show that each time I’ve been lost it has lead to some other, unplanned for but unique experience which I would never have found were I had been looking for it. The Lion Park was nice, but to tell such a story would be dishonest. My travel is sometimes for business sometimes as a tourist and I am granted only a limited amount of time and money in both cases. Being lost may very well lead you to an unexpected discovery, but it’s difficult to honestly compare what you’ve seen to what you’ve missed. In real life, being lost is incredibly stressful no matter how zen-like you hope to be.
Time is the enemy. On may way to the Cradle of Humankind and finding myself in the lap of lion cubs instead, I knew that, above all, I needed to be back in time to drop off my friend’s car and still make it across Joburg in an airport shuttle; driven hopefully by a driver who knows which roads are closed today. The needless stress threatens to ruin my time petting playful, 20 kg lion cubs, and worse, I’ve imposed it upon myself.
My blog is hardly an advice column. I do not think I show you the best way to travel. I spend too little money and squeeze far too much into each too short of a trip. I try to do business and still lug a camera everywhere. I save money on hotels and pack too few clothes. Skipping wireless hotspots and expensive cell phone calls keeps me out of touch with people I care about or business I need to do, and wearing this shirt for the third time will probably cause concern for my seatmate on the airplane who will worry about the rumpled, underdressed person next them and hope he’s not too smelly.
For me, the best measure of success isn’t all the things one has acquired or the impressive list of accomplishments. Success isn’t even be how much free time the person has, although that’s getting close. Instead, success might be measured by the amount of control over time one has. The freedom from procrastination and time sucking habits. The financial security to spend time unwisely but as desired. The intelligence and wisdom to fill life with activities that entertain but are enriching, that yield pride, instead of excuses.
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For a while, after a small container of stuff from my place in the Netherlands arrived to the my first ever home in Colorado, all the trinkets and souvenirs I had collected lay along the walls and corners of the house, piled up, like a cross between a Moroccan bazaar and an unsuccessful thrift store. I actually liked the look very much.
Even after all the old European junk and far eastern trinkets were each in some sort of place, a friend visited and, looking around, grumbled “It looks like my grandmother’s house.” I answered simply, “thank you.” Another friend tried to explain to me how I really should focus on a good piece from each trip and get rid of all the rest. One centerpiece on each wall, perhaps with a track lighting illuminating them. She’s right of course; decorating that way would bring attention to these few quality items and reduce the clutter. In my case, I don’t decorate, I display.
People with great memories, those who can repeat long lists of unrelated items backwards and forwards, often reproduce such parlor tricks through mnemonic devices. To each item they imagine something related to it and place it in a distinct spot in the museum of their mind. Together with the other items; each with a quirky, unforgettable story. I must admit, I really don’t understand how this works. I’ve successfully employed this technique, remembering a colleagues name through its odd mental connection a giant capital letter D draped with red velvet robes and ermine tails (Deitrich). I vaguely remember some other much stranger concoctions involving zebras reading books in a forest or some such nonsense, but generally, I am neither creative enough to create such stories rapidly, nor very good at either remembering the stories or how they actually relate the thing I wanted to remember. (What are those literary forest dwelling zebras telling me. I can’t remember.)
For years, when I travelled I collected nothing. Maybe some postcards, or patches for my backpack which I never sewed on, but essentially nothing. I had no money to buy them, no strength to carry them, and no room to store them. When I moved to Europe, giving up all of the things I had amassed growing up until then, save for a suitcase and a bicycle, I was stunned at how freeing it was to embrace a, unknown to me at the time, buddhist principal of non-attachment. I was not then so attached to all the music CDs and, well, I can’t really remember what else I must have had. Once it was gone, I barely missed it.
Eventually I missed not having anything to remind me of where I had been. When I lived in a more stable place, the one in the Netherlands, I started to buy a few things on my trips. No more would the silly souvenir camel remain in Egypt. Instead, these little items would start piling up around me like little milestones of adventures.
That is what they have become. Real world analogues to quirky mnemonic devices. The tiny wooden dolphin still conjures up haggling with a charming shop owner in Bali who would always offer me “morning price” for good luck. A cheap silver tea-pot reminds me not only of the sweet mint tea in Morocco, but also a rare argument with my traveling partner because we almost didn’t get them at all when an angry merchant wouldn’t accept my price. And so it goes, the dusty camel hair bag from Jordon, the silk table cloth from Thailand, the ridiculously large Giraffe from Swaziland and the equally cumbersome Buddha from Cambodia, both imported the hard way, by hand, on the plane back home.
If my house burns to the ground, an insurance company might demand that I add up all the money spent on cheap souvenirs over the years. I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t exceed $1,000. While I’ve experienced how easy it is to simply separate yourself from whatever you have, the flames would have burned more than pillow cases from Egypt and and copper water jugs from Holland. What really burned in that, thankfully, still imaginary fire, may not be worth much to the insurance company and if I had to, I am sure I could do with out them, but if I grow older still, these signposts of my life so far may be the only way to find my way through what I’ve experienced.
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